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Haiti: 'I've Never Seen Anything Like This'

By Michael Hill
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You pull your car into the parking lot of the Petionville Club in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and you find yourself in front of the impressive patio of the main clubhouse. Walk up a stairway, there are benches and tables and a fine outdoor bar.

"It's a private club," says Catholic Relief Services President Ken Hackett. "It's nice."

Celestin Estana

Celestin Estana receives a food voucher from CRS. She and her four children are living at the Petionville golf course. At night, the camp swells to close to 80,000 people. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Walk a little further and there's the club's swimming pool. Go a little further, take a right and you are on the first tee of the club's golf course. It's there that the view changes a bit. A few U.S. soldiers lounge around one of their trucks. A few more soldiers stand along the fairway, one with a machine gun, the rest unarmed.

'An Amazing Sight'

"Then you turn and look down the hill and you see it, thousands and thousands and thousands of people, under all sorts of shelters and tents, packed in, their voices rising up the hillside," Hackett says. "It's an amazing sight."

Hackett took a brief trip to Haiti for the January 23 funeral of Port-au-Prince's archbishop, Joseph Serge Miot, and vicar general Charles Benoit, held on the grounds of Port-au-Prince's Notre Dame cathedral. The quake destroyed the cathedral and took the lives of Miot and Benoit. Hackett accompanied representatives from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, including Archbishop Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and CRS board chairman, who was a celebrant at the funeral Mass.

After the two-hour service, Hackett visited sites where CRS is helping Haitians, including the Petionville Club. There he found about 50,000 people whose homes were destroyed or damaged in the earthquake. They came to the open spaces of this golf course looking for a safe place to live as aftershocks shook the capital city. In the absence of formal camps for the displaced, it would have to do.

Working with U.S Army airborne units, which are providing logistical support and security, CRS has fed thousands of people on the golf course. But it's only the beginning. Much more food is being brought in. A camp survey will help assure the distribution is equitable.

Living in the Streets

"Some water is finally getting there. Oxfam is trying their best to do that," Hackett says. "And we're going to have to do something about sanitation."

On this visit—his 10th to Haiti, he estimates—Hackett saw firsthand the challenges that CRS and other aid organizations face. "I've been in other earthquake zones, but I've never seen anything like this," he says. "Buildings are destroyed everywhere you look, though now and then you come upon one that looks fine. That's the nature of earthquakes.

"When you drive along the streets, you weave among the piles of rubble. You see young boys with just a regular household hammer pounding on concrete rubble that's the remains of their home," Hackett says. "Others are coming out of a damaged apartment, maybe carrying a sofa they have salvaged. And other people will be working on a car that's crushed beneath the rubble, trying to take off a few parts that they can sell.

Samora Bwiesa

Samora Bwiesa was on the third floor when her house collapsed in the January 12 Haiti earthquake. She is being cared for at St. Francois de Sales hospital. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

"The streets are full of people because that's where they are living," he says. "They close them down at night so people can sleep there."

Caring for the Wounded

Hackett also went to the St. Francois de Sales hospital, or what is left of it. CRS helped get the hospital stocked up and running. "At one end is the maternity ward, crashed down. On one side is the X-ray building, crashed down. On the other is the operating facility, crashed down," he says. "They surround this courtyard, which is full of people. Those are the patients.

"They are doing operations right there, out in the open," he says. "They told me they had done 80. I was talking to a medical team from Belgium. There are several others there."

Hackett noted that the AIDSRelief consortium, which includes CRS and the University of Maryland, had been working with St. Francois before the earthquake. "They had just arranged a partnership between Maryland and St. Francois," he says. "Doctors from here were going there and doctors from there were coming here. Now this. Some of the top people at St. Francois thought they should just shut down, but others thought they could keep going. I'm glad we helped them do that. Many lives have been saved because of that.

"But it's sad because there are still bodies under the rubble of that hospital, including nurses and babies in that maternity section," he says.

'So Much Needs to Be Done'

Hackett says CRS was able to provide immediate help in part because much of our staff was located in Les Cayes, away from the earthquake's epicenter. Relatively unaffected by the quake, they came to Port-au-Prince and went to work. CRS had also supplies already in place in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which were brought in and distributed.

"So much needs to be done," he says. "The destruction is so immense. Whatever you do, you have to listen to the Haitians. It might make sense sitting in Geneva or somewhere to build a nice camp with good water and sanitation 100 miles away from Port-au-Prince, but it could turn out no one wants to go there because they have jobs in the city. Even if their homes are destroyed, that's where they are going to stay.

"You have to figure these things out," Hackett says. "It's a lot of work and it's only just started. We've been in Haiti for 55 years and we'll be there for a long time in the future."

Learn more about CRS' response to the earthquake in Haiti.

Michael Hill is CRS' communications officer for sub-Saharan Africa. He is based at the agency's headquarters in Baltimore.

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